HONOLULU – A college student who graduated from one of Hawaii’s most prestigious high schools — former President Barack Obama’s alma mater — was led out of a courtroom in handcuffs Thursday after a judge sentenced him to 45 days in jail for slaughtering vulnerable seabirds at a nature reserve.
Prosecutors and wildlife conservationists urged a judge to sentence Christian Gutierrez to a year behind bars, saying he deserves full punishment for the grisly killing of federally protected Laysan albatrosses.
Gutierrez and a group of buddies from the Honolulu prep school Punahou went camping in 2015 on the westernmost tip of the island of Oahu. Prosecutors say they killed at least 15 Laysan albatrosses near the Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve by bludgeoning them with a bat and machete and shooting them with a pellet gun. The teens cut off the birds’ legs, tied the birds together and threw them over a cliff into in the ocean, prosecutors said. Nests and eggs were smashed.
In March, Gutierrez pleaded no contest to animal cruelty, theft and other charges. He gave in to peer pressure and initially denied his involvement because he was embarrassed to tell his parents, said his defense attorney, Myles Breiner.
Gutierrez said in court that he wishes he had the courage not to go along and understands why people are angry and disgusted. “I am ashamed of myself,” he said.
The small courtroom’s gallery was standing-room-only for his sentencing, where a stuffed albatross sat on the prosecution table. Environmental Court Judge Jeannette Castagnetti listened for several hours as wildlife conservationists and state officials described the impact of the destruction.
“He turned my favorite place on Earth into a crime scene,” Lindsay Young, executive director of Pacific Rim Conservation said through tears, describing how the crimes left her “life’s work and spirit shattered.”
William Aila, former director of the state Department of Land Natural Resources, chanted in Hawaiian then urged forgiveness and a “period of solitude” for Gutierrez.
The Laysan albatross is culturally significant to Native Hawaiians who consider them aumakua, or “revered ancestors and guardian spirits,” prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum, which called them “peaceful and trusting birds who do not recognize predators.”
The killings “smacked of privilege and entitlement,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Janice Futa said.
Gutierrez had to bear the brunt of public backlash that called for punishment of privileged teens because he was the only one charged who was 18 at the time, said his defense attorney, Myles Breiner. Two other cases are being handled confidentially in juvenile court, he said.
Gutierrez accepted responsibility, expressed remorse and sought mental health treatment, Breiner said.
In a sentencing memorandum, Breiner said Gutierrez was responsible for the deaths of two birds and said he didn’t participate in the cutting and tying of birds. He wasn’t the “architect” of the incident, didn’t get the permit to camp and didn’t bring any weapons, the defense attorney said.
Another teen kept stolen monitoring equipment and posted photos online, Breiner said.
Punahou School said it condemns the “senseless destruction” of the nesting area.
“The deplorable action contradicts the values our school promotes with students, among them respect for our community and the environment,” the school said in a statement.
Breiner said he hopes Gutierrez can return to New York University in late August after serving his jail sentence. Gutierrez must also pay about a $1,000 for his share of restitution for the stolen monitoring equipment and serve 200 hours of community service.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairwoman Suzanne Case applauded the sentence for sending a strong message.
“While we are relieved to be closing this painful chapter and feel that justice has been served for our wildlife,” Pacific Rim Conservation said in a statement, “we also recognize that any time a young person is sent to jail is a sad day.”
JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER